As lightning kills 12 in a day, Odisha proposes large-scale palm tree plantations

  • Odisha continues to top the list of states with the most lightning strikes, according to the last Annual Lightning Report.
  • But Odisha had also managed to lessen its lightning-related casualties to 156 in 2020-21 from 207 in 2019-20.
  • The state is planning a large-scale palm tree plantation to mitigate the impact of lightning strikes and reduce deaths.

Forty-year-old Sanoj Patra was supervising his one acre of paddy field in Odisha’s Khordha district when lightning struck, killing him on the spot. The same day, on September 2, 11 others in four other districts of Odisha died from lightning strikes. In that single day, Odisha recorded 39,392 strikes (cloud-cloud and cloud-ground).

Lightning is the discharge of electricity to another cloud or to the ground. The effects of lightning on humans include burns, muscle spasms, multi-system dysfunction, cardiac arrest and instant death. According to experts, the September 2 phenomenon in Odisha was a result of recurrent dry spells in between the monsoon months.

“This is not a new phenomenon. The change in rainfall patterns with a longer dry spell time period breaking through the monsoon leads to increased lightning events,” said Manoranjan Mishra, a professor at FM University, Balasore. He has extensively researched on lightning in India and has developed a geospatial lab, dedicated to the study, in collaboration with the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

The eastern coastal state of Odisha, prone to natural calamities, continues to be one of the leading states in terms of mortality due to lightning. With the recent deaths, inter-departmental initiatives have now been proposed to lower the mortalities.

Proposal to declare lightning a natural disaster

On April 1, 2015, Odisha declared lightning a “state-specific disaster”. Based on this, a family of a deceased person due to a lightning strike receives Rs. four lakhs (Rs. 400,000) ex-gratia. But recently, Odisha also floated a proposal to the Centre to declare lightning as a natural disaster.

“We have been successful in minimising deaths due to natural disasters such as cyclones. The recent deaths due to lightning in the state have prompted us to demand that lightning be declared a natural disaster,” Pramila Mallik, told Mongabay India when she was the Minister of Revenue and Disaster Management, Odisha. She has recently resigned from the position is now the Speaker of the Odisha Legislative Assembly. “We are amongst the 16 states who have declared lightning as a state-specific disaster. The mortality rate is high and the declaration as a natural disaster will ensure better ex-gratia for the families as well. We are following it up with the Centre,” she added.

According to the Annual Lightning Report 2021-22, most victims of lighting are from rural areas (96%) which include farmers, cattle grazers, fishermen, jungle hunters and labourers working in the open. The report also highlighted that lightning strikes increased 34% from 2019-20 to 2020-21 and then reduced by 19.5% in 2021-22.

Studies also show that lightning strikes will increase by about 12 percent for every degree of rise in global average air temperature.

Palm tree plantations as lightning conductors

With the likelihood of increasing lightning strikes and their impacts, Odisha is adopting mitigating measures.

Following the lightning-related deaths on September 2, the Odisha state government directed the Forest and Agriculture departments to take up large-scale plantations of palm trees (Arecaceae) as a mitigation measure against such casualties, especially in rural pockets.

Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) Satyabrata Sahu, who chaired an inter-departmental meeting for the implementation of disaster resilient projects under the Disaster Mitigation Fund asked officials of the Forest, Environment and Agriculture departments to take up large-scale palm tree plantations in reserve forests and other vulnerable districts to reduce lightning-related hazards.

“We have referred to multiple studies which show that palm trees are useful in preventing lightning strikes. The plantation will be conducted in rural areas first, mostly around agricultural farms,” said Gyana Ranjan Das, Managing Director, of Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) and Additional Special Relief Commissioner.

Countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh have opted for large-scale palm tree plantations to mitigate lightning deaths.

Palm trees next to a farmland. Photo by Gayatri Priyadarshini/Wikimedia Commons.
Palm trees next to a farmland. Photo by Gayatri Priyadarshini/Wikimedia Commons.

“As trees contain sap and water, they absorb the lightning and are damaged themselves,” said Umashankar Das, senior scientist at IMD, Bhubaneswar. “A tall palm tree can absorb the impact of lightning and reduce the direct impact on the ground. It is not a tree that a person would take shelter under. Earlier, palm trees were rather common, but they aren’t of much use which is why the numbers went down gradually. But we are hopeful that with this plantation, we can mitigate the impact.”

When contacted, the forest department said that the plantation process will only be taken up in the coming year, 2024, as the plantation period for this year has ended.

“In 2018, a similar notification was issued, and we have asked all RCCFs to follow up on the same,” said M. Yogajaynanda, CEO of Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), Odisha. “This year, our prime focus is to protect the existing palm trees. Since it is on the exempted species list, it does not require a transit permit for transportation. To check on any kind of illegal felling and transportation, we are planning to remove it from the exemption list.”

From next year, the authorities are planning new plantations after a specific survey of areas to also estimate the need and geographic locations, said Yogajaynanda.

Awareness is key

While these large-scale initiatives are being mulled over, experts say that awareness at the hyperlocal level will still be the most effective way to reduce mortality due to lightning strikes.

The India Meteorological Department issues specific forecasts related to lightning with colour-coded warnings. The first forecast is issued three days ahead of any lightning events, and the second forecast is issued three hours before the lightning events.

“There needs to be better mechanisms for dissemination of this information to people working in fields or outdoors. The forecast is only beneficial if people are able to learn about the impending lightning and thunderstorms, plan their day, and take safety measures accordingly,” Das said.

Meanwhile, Mishra added that there are also sporadic deaths due to lightning events, which add up every year. “There need to be extensive campaigns to make people aware of what to do and what not to do in case of such events. There are fixed advisory timings by the forecast agencies and it’s important that certain forecasts are passed on early in the morning before people step out to work.”

In its suggestions to states, the Annual Lightning Report also recommends that states should undertake lightning micro-zonation for geographical region-wise precise handling of the risk. “The Lightning Risk Management programme for each state has to be customised as per seasonality, intensity and frequency of lightning,” the report said.


Banner image: A lighting strike in Morocco, Africa. Representative image. Photo by Abdelhamid Bou Ikhessayen/Wikimedia Commons.

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